“INDESCRIBABLE”, ACCORDING TO TOMSON HIGHWAY

(Photo of Tomson Highway, left, and Doug Gibson, Toronto, June 2018, by Mark Cardwell)

As my faithful readers know, I have made a point of attending The Writers’ Union annual Margaret Laurence Lectures down through the years. The very first Lecture, at the Union AGM at Queen’s,  was given by my author Hugh MacLennan. I recall that he reported with satisfaction on a recent very frank conversation with a small boy, who was appalled by Hugh’s great age, and asked him “What does it feel like to know that you’ll soon be dead?”

Other lectures have been memorable, usually in a different way, as Canada’s finest authors spoke about their experience of the writing life. Sometimes I , smiling benevolently as a friendly Publisher in the audience, found myself playing the role of the villain. The most notable case was in 1997, when Edna Staebler , the author of books like “Food That Really Schmecks”, was the selected author. Edna, born into a Mennonite family in 1906, was a sweet little old lady, a smiling apple-cheeked veteran, worthy of her proud Publisher’s support on this important evening.

IN ACROSS CANADA BY STORY I write: “At the end of a long publishing day I drove to Kingston to support good old Edna. She chose to take the audience through her career as an author, book by book. When she came to the first book  published by M&S, she said: “Now I see Doug Gibson in the audience, and Doug, I have to say that when it came to Promoting “More Food That Really Schmecks”, I was really disappointed by the job that M&S did. Really disappointed.”

The audience of writers — not all of whom believed that their own publishers had promoted their own books ideally, successfully attracting every possible reader — was loudly delighted.

It got worse. Every book we had published, it seemed, had been badly promoted, although each time Edna was “sorry to have to say this, Doug”. Eventually I sat there in the middle of the audience (my neighbours drawing away from me) with my hands clasped protectively over my head. It was an admission that I was being publicly beaten up, from the stage, by a sweet little lady, now aged ninety-one, but still kicking.”

In later years authors like Alistair MacLeod had some fun at my expense, and in St. John’s in 2014 Guy Vanderhaeghe’s Lecture was so critical of the publishing hotshot named Gibson who took forever to decide to publish Man Descending (until HE gave ME a deadline) that friends in the audience later asked me for my side of the story. I simply said that Guy’s story was too good not to be true.

So this year, at the Writers’ Union AGM in Toronto I was excited to attend the Margaret Laurence lecture delivered by Tomson Highway.

Tomson’s career led us to expect something a little different, and he had great fun providing it. We all learned more Cree than we had known before. Since Tomson, who spends a lot of time in Europe, is fluent in  French, and Spanish and Portuguese and much else, there was a feast of language behind his witty talk.

But words failed him the next day , when I ran into him in the corridor. My friend Mark Cardwell was with me , with his trusty camera, when I shyly went up to Tomson, whom I had never met. When I introduced myself, he said: “Doug Gibson? DOUG GIBSON? THE INDESCRIBABLE DOUG GIBSON?”

It must be true. Tomson Highway said so. I like to think that this is one of the few cases when “indescribable” is used in a good way.

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Supporting Striking Library Workers

On Sunday, March 25, the Writers’ Union of Canada joined the ongoing demonstration by striking library workers outside the Metro Reference Library. As an honorary member of the union, I was glad to be able to lend my support to this event, which was organized by Susan Swan and headed by TWUC President Greg Hollingshead.

After Greg and Susan, a number of other authors spoke briefly but vigorously in favour of libraries and their workers.  These speakers included Ken McGoogan, (the head of the Public Lending Right committee, which ensures that authors are recompensed for the use of their books in libraries), Erika Ritter, and me.

Photo: TPLWU Local 4948

I spoke (entirely unofficially) on behalf of publishers, none of whom were present (ahem), noting that publishers knew and appreciated the role of librarians. Then I spoke as an author, and as a member of the union who was glad to participate  in the event. I explained that I was a writer who had benefited from the libraries, pointing to the adjoining Reference Library and announcing that I had researched my own book “right there.”

Then I commented on the famous proudly ignorant statement by Doug Ford that he would not recognize the (library-supporting) Margaret Atwood if she passed him “in the street.” I was able to tell the crowd that in June I was in Kirkwall, a small town in the Orkney Islands, off the north coast of Scotland. There an excited Scot stopped me in the street, saying, “My wife’s just seen Margaret Atwood!” Since Margaret and I were both staff members of the visiting Adventure Canada cruise I was able to confirm the sighting, and he went off, thrilled. Clearly, people around the world do recognize Toronto’s famous author in the street. Doug Ford – who embarrasses Dougs everywhere – should himself be embarrassed.

I did not go on to comment that Rob and Doug Ford do not strike me (and this may be an unfair assumption) as people whose worldview has been shaped by much time spent in libraries. Nor did I go on to suggest that the library workers are in the front lines of a battle that concerns us all; battle between Tea Party-inspired politicians who believe that all taxes are bad, and must always be cut, and never, ever raised. This has led to an extraordinary event in Silicon Valley (as I learned on a brief recent trip to California) where there is extreme, billion-dollar private affluence alongside public squalor, with closed libraries, crowded schools and bad roads. The situation is so bad that major players at the head of some  Silicon Valley companies are organizing to raise private funds in support of public services. One company spokesman noted that people don’t like living in communities with these public flaws, hence the new fundraising movement.

It all reminds me of the American judge (was it Oliver Wendell Holmes?) who said flatly, “I enjoy paying taxes. With them I buy civilization.” I’m sorry now that I didn’t lead the crowd in a chant: “What Do We Want? . . . Civilization! When Do We Want It? Now!”

But, clad in my bright yellow, orange and red Buchanan tartan shirt, I learned a useful tip about making outdoor speeches against the roar of passing traffic. Speak loudly, and wear a loud shirt.

— Douglas Gibson